Exercise: the Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes

Brief

Read the article ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what ways does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

Response

Lutz and Collins take the concept of the photographic gaze and dissect it in admirably comprehensive detail, from a viewpoint of Western viewers of images of  non-Westerners: “[T]he look at the racial other places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of both recognising him or herself in the other and denying that recognition” (Lutz & Collins 1991: 136).

The essay adds to my existing understanding of Foucault’s theories of disciplinary power (my emphasis):

“[P]hotography of the other operates at the nexus of knowledge and power that Foucault identified … The crucial role of photography in the exercise of power lies in its ability to allow for close study of the other” (ibid: 136)

In particular I was interested in the discussion of ‘normalisation’ – how photography of ‘deviants’ (criminals, the mentally ill and, much more controversially, certain racial and ethic types) had been used as:

“representation of these others to an audience of non-deviants who thereby acquire a language for understanding themselves and the limits they must live within to avoid categorisation with ‘the outside’.” (ibid: 136)

In this way, seeing examples of ‘non-standard’ individuals and peoples helps to form a (comparative) sense of cultural identity in the ‘civilised’ viewer: ‘I am normal because I am not like these unusual people’.

Lutz and Collins identified seven types of photographic gaze, some of which are interesting to examine while others I found more tangental:

  1. The photographer’s gaze
  2. The institutional gaze
  3. The reader’s gaze
  4. The non-Western subject’s gaze
  5. The explicit Westerner’s gaze
  6. The gaze returned or refracted by mirrors or cameras
  7. The academic gaze

1. The photographer’s gaze

This is straightforward enough and I have covered it elsewhere in my studies; the photographer is always making subjective decisions, even if subconsciously, that affect what ends up in the frame. Vantage point, cropping, colour palette, focus etc all form part of the visual vocabulary available to the photographer.

2. The institutional gaze

In the examples given Lutz and Collins are talking about a magazine’s gaze, in this instance National Geographic, but it could apply to whatever distribution channel is being used. Again, this is familiar territory: that the magazine decides what to commission, which images to select, how to crop and caption them.

3. The reader’s gaze

Per Barthes, a photographic image does not have a single, universal interpretation but is the result of a reading made by the viewer. The photographer and the magazine will have tried to direct the viewer to the intended reading but the final part of the mental processing is out of their hands. A negotiated or oppositional reading is a risk. The reader’s gaze has a reflexive context, or as the essay puts it, “a history and a future … structured by the mental work of inference and imagination” (ibid: 138).

There are paradoxes in play when looking at ‘the Other’; the viewer can get a sense of participation through vicarious viewing, and the presumed consent of the subject to be photographed can imply a valid relationship with the viewer – but the photographic construct (two dimensional, static, fragmentary, framed to remove all the context) objectifies and creates intraversable distance. The subject may have given the photographer consent to gaze, but not you the magazine reader…

4. The subject’s gaze

The authors discuss four responses a subject can make: (a) confront the camera head-on; (b) look at something within the frame; (c) look out of frame; (d) no gaze, eyes unseen.

(a) implies acknowledgement of the photographer and by extension the reader, although it’s not always a sign of consent – some returned gazes can be welcoming, but others can be defiant, challenging. The returned gaze can imply intimacy, yet inherently has to be a staged shot and so could diminish the perceived neutrality of the photographer. The frontality technique invites examination, whether this is intended to be critical or celebratory. This invitation to close examination, however, risks turning the subject into a typographical specimen and so carries undertones of condescension.

Lutz and Collins’ study showed that subjects culturally defined as ‘weaker’ (children, women, the poor, the racially oppressed) are more likely to directly face the camera, while men, community leaders, pillars of society are more likely to look elsewhere, per (b) and (c) above. This is a fascinating insight that supports Foucault’s disciplinary power theory – that to allow oneself to be closely examined is to be subservient.

In semiotic terms, the gaze at something or someone else in the photo as described in (b) above is often a clue as to the interests and motivations of the subject.

The distant gaze (c) is potentially indicative of thoughtfulness, determination, planned action – disregarding the photographer is itself a form of defiance. In some cases, an averted gaze allows more identification with the reader – as both subject and reader are ‘outside the frame’.

The unseen gaze (d) is increasingly prevalent, especially in countries with strong religions beliefs regarding the presentation of women. A gaze specifically withheld is a sign of a boundary that must not be crossed.

5. The explicit Westerner’s gaze

A little niche, this one, though presumably of interest to National Geographic readers. This concerns the relation between the Western and local subjects in photographs, and in particular how they address each other. The scope for examining power structures is obvious – visual hierarchy can be demonstrated by e.g. composition can reinforce colonial stereotypes. This kind of image is no longer as popular as it once was.

6. The refracted gaze

Again a bit niche, but speaks to issues around identity, both personal and societal.

7. The academic gaze

A subset of the reader’s gaze for the over-thinkers among us.

Application to own practice

The brief asks us to consider how these ideas around the gaze impact our own work.

I tend not to take too many posed pictures of identifiable individuals and so the notion of the gaze isn’t always uppermost in my mind. However, reading this has helped me to articulate certain things that I’d appreciated but not thought about too consciously, and made me think about other aspects that hadn’t crossed my mind before.

Specifically, the notions of the photographer’s gaze and the reader’s gaze were already familiar to me but I have considered them in a new light regarding power structures and the ethics around photographing ‘the Other’.

The most enlightening section for me was the discussion of the subject’s gaze. I will in future pay more attention to the gazes of people in my photographs, and what significance might be attached to them – so I can relate the significance back to my intent, which is itself about the alignment of the photographer’s gaze and the desired reader’s gaze.

I’ve realised that I tend not to capture direct, returned gazes as per 4 (a) above, but my reason has always been about my own shyness rather than a respect of the subject! Interesting to realise that in eschewing such direct gazes, I am subverting the traditional power structures inherent in photography – albeit accidentally… I’m more likely to catch subjects with the gaze types 4 (b), (c) and (d), and they’ll be candid, captured shots which I consider to be more naturalistic than any posed shots. But I know now to at least consider the potential interpretations of such images.

Sources

‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes’ http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/nationalgeographic_gaze.pdf (accessed 19/09/2016)

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